We found Chestnut Hill Local writer Hugh Gilmore at home in his small boathouse, bobbing along one of the many tributaries of the Wissahickon Creek. He had agreed to an interview aimed at answering a few of the many questions that arise when this man of mystery’s name arises in conversation. We began by asking him if he’s an employee of the Chestnut Hill Local?
HG: “No, I just write a column for them. I’m treated as a private contractor. I submit an invoice with each article.”
Does that mean – Holy cow – you’re paid?
HG: “Of course. Every columnist for this paper who has a chucklehead inset photo is paid. A few others too, probably. I’m not sure. Nobody shows his cards. In ten years I’ve moved from being paid an amount I wouldn’t bend over to pick up in the street if I weren’t hungry, to an amount I wouldn’t bend over for if I weren’t thirsty.”
We asked him why they pay so little?
HG: “This is a small paper in a business that is constantly threatened by shrinking revenues as the world goes social-media mad. Content rules. Content is plentiful. Many people write many millions of words and are willing to give them away. This may keep the birdcage lined, but it doesn’t put seed in the canary’s cup.”
We found his response interesting and decided to ask just how this freelance business works. We asked him if the Local gave him an office and a desk and a water cooler where he hangs out with the masthead people. Is it true, for example, that they all stand at the window smoking cigars and laughing at the Chestnut Hillers trundling up and down Main Street below their office?
HG: “Nothing like that. I’ve gone in the Local office maybe six times in ten years and that was to pick up an extra copy of the Local because one of the perks of writing for them is that a writer may stop in and be given a free copy of the newspaper. Imagine that! On those occasions I have met perhaps half the mastheaders.”
So, you don’t work there at the office?
HG: “That’s correct. I have an office here on my boat. My work week goes like this: I get an idea. Whenever I am sitting in my deck chair, or out walking, or shaving my neck, or poling my craft off a sand bank, I think about how I might angle that idea. By Saturday I usually have a fairly clear idea of what I want to say. Not actual sentences, but ideas I must include, and their probable sequences. Then on Saturday I write at least half of it to see if it sounds right.
Why don’t you write it earlier than that and edit it all week, we asked?
HG: “Because a 1,000-word article can have the life written out of it by rewriting it too often. On Sunday I am at my desk at 9 a.m. and write a full version. That usually takes me till 1 p.m. At intervals for the rest of the day I return to the column and tinker. Just before going to bed around ten, I give the whole story another rewrite. Then I get up early on Monday morning and do another sweep through, mostly looking for typos or obvious goofs. If all seems well, I send the column and suggested headline and photo and caption, together with a personal note, to my editor, Mr. Peter Mazzaccaro.
That’s usually around 10 a.m.”
We assumed that was when the editorial back and forth began and asked him if he and the editors kicked the story around for a day or two before the paper went to press Tuesday afternoon and came out on Wednesday.
HG: Huh? The Local is so small and understaffed and this skeleton staff is so overworked, there is no time for such Hemingway-to Max Perkins-back to Hemingway niceties. As far as I can figure, my copy gets read by my editor, Pete M, gets read by a copy editor named Walter Fox – an old-time news gent with a sharp eye – and then goes to layout and production and whatever else. But never, ever, does it come back to me so I can approve any changes they suggest.”
We wondered what that was like. Was it exciting to write something and wait for the world’s reaction?
HG: “No, I send my article via email on Monday. That’s akin to dropping a stone into a deep canyon and waiting to hear it hit bottom, a sound I rarely hear. For nine of my ten years I clicked “Send” and that was it. SILENCE followed. No reaction from the editors and certainly none from the readers of the column. It was just time to start next week’s article. Most writers, especially small writers from small papers, never get reacted to. The only feedback is this: Nobody fired me so I must be doing OK. In fact, it’s possible I was fired three years ago, but they’re all too busy to notify me, so they keep printing my stuff. A year ago I began asking the editor I send my copy to: Please acknowledge receipt of this email. It worked. Now my inbox shows: ‘Got it,’ so I feel the stone hitting the canyon bottom, at last.”
We asked Hugh if he likes the other columnists who write for the paper.
HG: “Yes, all of them. I’ve never met any of them, and I doubt they know each other. The Local doesn’t throw office parties and invite fringe people like us. The other freelancers are a thoughtful and funny bunch. Sometimes I feel a bit jealous of someone’s talent or rising popularity, but after a while nearly all of them drop out, or write less frequently. And I’m still clopping along. I’ve averaged over 40 columns a year for ten years.”
We thought we’d conclude by asking Hugh if he’s recognized in the community after such a long time.
HG: “Sometimes someone recognizes me from my picture in the paper. Others respond to my name. That feels good. Once, just once, a man in a bar bought me a drink. Wow, the journalist’s life for me, I thought at the time. But it was just once. I was brought down to earth recently when a fellow came around the neighborhood organizing a block party. He asked my name. I told him. He said, ‘Oh, yeah, you write for the Local don’t you? Something about how much you hate reading, or books are your enemy, or something?”